Researchers are on the cusp of perfecting a technique to read Dead Sea scrolls that are too brittle to be unrolled and decipher the content of these 2,000-year-old texts without ever opening them.
An international team of archaeologists, computer scientists and physicists is planning to virtually unwrap these fragile manuscripts by tapping into the power of a synchrotron, a massive ring-shaped particle accelerator in which scientists smash atoms together to figure out how the Universe works.
Scholars have been able to decipher most of the parchments and papyri found along the shores of the Dead Sea, but a few dozen are in such poor condition that any attempt to unroll them would almost certainly destroy them, explains Pnina Shor, curator for the Dead Sea Scrolls at the Israel Antiquities Authority.
Unintuitively, given their discovery in one of the more arid spots on Earth, most of these scrolls have been damaged by humidity, which caused what experts call a process of gelatinization, Shor explains. That turns the scrolls of papyrus or parchment into a single lump, and experience teaches that trying to open and tease apart the layers simply ruins them, she says.
These blackened lumps of organic material don’t look like much, but biblical scholars are still eager to read them, hoping to either discover new texts or in order to compare known verses of scripture to their current form. Considered the oldest copies of the Hebrew Bible, the Dead Sea scrolls were penned before the canonization of the Jewish holy books, meaning they sometimes differ from the traditional version as we know it today or include apocryphal texts.
Reading the oldest Torah
The project builds on the team’s recent success in deciphering the charred remains of the Ein Gedi scroll, a parchment unearthed in the ruins of the synagogue of the ancient settlement that gives it its name. The scroll, written in the third or fourth century C.E., had been reduced to a chunk of charcoal when the synagogue of Ein Gedi burned down in around the year 600.
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In 2015, the team used micro-CT scanning and advanced imaging algorithms to digitally separate the layers within the scroll. They then virtually unwrapped the manuscript and could actually read the text – which turned out to be the first two chapters of Leviticus, making it the most ancient Torah scroll found since the Dead Sea scrolls and the most ancient ever found in a synagogue.
“The scroll from Ein Gedi was really a breakthrough,” says Brent Seales, a professor of computer science at the University of Kentucky who developed the software used for the digital unwrapping. “We did some follow-up work with small fragments that can’t be opened and we realized the technique can be applied to more than that one item.”
The Ein Gedi parchment was found in the same area as the Dead Sea Scrolls but isn’t categorized as part of that “collection,” because it dates to the later Byzantine period. The Dead Sea scrolls generally date from the third century B.C.E. to the first century C.E.
However, the provenance of the Ein Gedi scroll from a later age was helpful to the researchers because by that time ink commonly contained traces of metal, usually lead or iron, which made the ink much denser than the animal skin on which the scribes wrote. That greater density made the letters more visible in the CT scan – in the same way that bone looks much brighter than soft tissues in an X-ray image.
But this is not the case for the actual Dead Sea scrolls, which were written earlier, mostly in carbon ink, made with soot and a binding agent.
Add to this that most Dead Sea scroll fragments are even smaller than the cigar-sized Ein Gedi scroll, requiring even better-quality scans, Seales says.
High-resolution scans done in 2018 on a few gelatinized Dead Sea scrolls showed that it is still possible to make out letters inside these parchments, but an even higher resolution is required to fully decipher the texts, Shor tells Haaretz.
Enter the synchrotron
That’s how the researchers got the idea to stick some of the oldest known copies of the Bible into one of the most complex and advanced machines built by humans.
Particle accelerators are perhaps best known for producing the high-energy collisions that help scientists discover exotic sub-atomic particles, with the aim of gaining a deeper understanding of the laws of physics. But they are also used to generate and study X-rays, generally for their medical applications in diagnostics and cancer treatment.
Those same X-rays can be used to make higher resolution scans of the damaged scrolls than any existing CT machine, says Seales.
“The X-rays produced by the accelerated particles are much finer and more controllable than the ones on a desktop machine. You can get to a resolution that is sub-micron, in the nanometer range,” he says, noting that the imaging capabilities of synchrotrons have already been enlisted, for example, to study the minutest details of fossil insects trapped in amber.
It bears saying that, while transporting delicate antiquities always entails some risk of damage to the artifact, exposing inanimate objects like the Dead Sea scrolls to X-rays does not cause any harm in and of itself.
So, Seales and the rest of the team have been looking to close an agreement with a particle accelerator to conduct their study. Possible candidates include the synchrotron at Brookhaven in New York or the machine operated by Stanford University in California, Seales says.
The coronavirus crisis has slowed the team’s plans, but assuming the pandemic recedes and travel restrictions are lifted, they should be ready to conduct their experiments by this fall, he estimates.
The first “test subjects” would be a tiny scroll found rolled up inside a phylactery, as well as two larger parchments of the book of Ezekiel and Minor Prophets (these two could be identified because parts of them have fallen off and could therefore be read), Shor says.
As with most research on the biblical scrolls in the collection, experts will be looking for differences between these manuscripts and the so-called Masoretic text, the authoritative version of the Hebrew Bible codified in the early Middle Ages, Shor says. Even small changes have given experts clues about the history of the biblical text and the different sects into which Judaism was divided at the end of the Second Temple Period.
“This started as a conservation project, but soon I realized it was going to open a new page for the scholarly community,” Shor says. “We are advancing scholarship by deciphering these scrolls, but at the same time we are protecting them for a time when, maybe, it will be possible to open them without damaging them.”
Can’t fake out the particle accelerator
Virtual unwrapping could also be an additional diagnostic tool to help identify forgeries, which are particularly frequent in the gray area of the international trade in Dead Sea scroll fragments. This phenomenon was spectacularly displayed by the recent revelation that all 16 Dead Sea scroll fragments housed at the Museum of the Bible in Washington D.C. were fakes.
“Virtual unwrapping can only help in this regard,” Seales says. “These scans see through every level of the parchment, down to the cellular structure of the animal whose skin was used to make it, and you can’t fake that.”
Of course, it’s not easy to book time on a busy particle accelerator to study every single fragment of parchment, but Seales believes that once they have found the best imaging methods a more small-scale system can be built, similarly to what is done with medical equipment used for radiation therapy in hospitals.
“Once we figure out the right settings it’s possible to reengineer a system that is portable that can produce those specific X-rays without having the whole apparatus of a particle accelerator,” he tells Haaretz.
To be clear, such a technique would not just be useful to decipher Dead Sea scrolls, but could help experts read many other ancient manuscripts that are too fragile to be handled. In fact, Seales is also heading a separate effort to virtually unwrap the most fragile unopened texts recovered from the so-called Villa of the Papyri in Herculaneum, where nearly 2,000 charred scrolls were found buried by the eruption of Mount Vesuvius that destroyed that town as well as nearby Pompeii in 79 C.E.
One of the papyri was scanned in October at the Diamond particle accelerator in Oxfordshire, and while the results are still being studied, Seales says he is confident they will be able to decipher this text as well.
“Archaeologists are not finding new things all the time, especially in terms of texts,” Seales says, speaking about the importance of unlocking the secrets of these ancient manuscripts. “The Classical Era and the Second Temple Period are largely locked away from us now, so it’s important to get everything out of what we have and understand as much as we can.”
Refining the scans and machine learning techniques that help us virtually peel away wafer-thin layers of ancient scrolls and identify the words penned on them is something that can have applications in many other fields as well, Seales adds.
“For example, mapping out the neuron structure of the brain is a really important problem in understanding pathology and our own anatomy,” he notes. “Tracing single neurons through a high resolution scan is a very similar problem to tracing the layer of a very thin scroll: geometrically the problems are very similar.”
So it might yet happen that deciphering the missing pieces in the Dead Sea scrolls puzzle may lead us to crack another great mystery, that of the innermost workings of the human brain.